Films I Want To Share


Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat : Where Class Inequality Is Surmountable But Caste Inequalities Cast A Long Shadow

Don’t know how and when I will get to see Nagraj’s new film Sairat but I am fan so want to share. I loved the trailer. The cinematography is gorgeous, the songs melodious. The film should be a zinger.

So in between my self indulgent posts, here is a fangirl share.

via F.I.G.H.T.C.L.U.B.

 

Brave New World of Yoga


Source: Brave New World of Yoga

Here is an inspiring post from a yogi. I often laugh off skinny white women in their Lululemon Athletica and spray tanned skin talking about ‘yoga’ because I believe that the truth cannot be appropriated, that for every such instant-nirvana seeker there are yogis who, with their truth, will carry on and that stream is ever flowing. (I don’t mean the angry Baba Ramdev types who propagate Hindu extremism through their teachings, that is equally corrupt.)

Maybe I should defend yoga more often when the next skinny white woman rubs it into my face?

Dreams Don’t Have Labels Of Caste And Religion – Nagraj Manjule reminsces about his life and ‘Fandry’


The resurgence of Marathi cinema makes me immensely proud in a way that I cannot explain. I am the last person in the world, I would like to think, who believes in ideas such as patriotism and nationalism thus by default, parochialism. Growing up in Girgaum, Bombay, watching Marathi theatre ranging from sangeet natak (musicals) to Vijay Tendulkar‘s masterpieces, old arthouse cinema (Jabbar Patel in particular) as well as the madness of Dada Kondke, knowing inherently that a Maharashtrian audience receives and consumes visual performing arts in a different way, I could not understand why it was limited in its outreach. Or why it faded away.

Now I do and so I feel happy to see the renaissance. From the inane commercial to global cinema it is an amazing spectrum. Then we have artists like Nagraj Manjule whose life experience will always make for brilliant storytelling. I watched this trailer of Fandry and wanted to see the film, I wanted to cry, to feel angry, frustrated, come out of the theatre pumped up to change the world. This film will never release in New Zealand but I imagine myself doing all the above anyway. Nagraj has nothing new to say yet it needs to be told over and over to sensitize us. So thank you Nagraj. Here is to more path breaking stories via Marathi cinema.

F.i.g.h.t C.l.u.b

Since the time we saw Nagraj Manjule’s debut feature ‘Fandry’, we have been shouting out from rooftop that it’s a terrific debut and a must watch. Click here to read our recco post. This week, Fandry is releasing outside Maharashtra, and with English subtites.

The show details – Date: February 28 to March 6

Delhi NCR
PVR MGF Mall 9:10 PM
DT Cinemas Vasant Kunj: 3: 30 PM

Indore
PVR Indore 5:00 PM

After the film’s release and the acclaim it got all over, Nagraj wrote a piece for Maharashtra Times. Much thanks to @GoanSufi who came up with the idea to translate it in English for wider reach, took the permission, and did it for us. Do watch the film if you haven’t seen it yet. And then read it.

Nagraj-Manjule-photo

Remembering   Fandry

Now that Fandry has released, I’m reminiscing about all those incidents that are linked with it. These…

View original post 868 more words

Arise Goddess Kali


I was going to write an end-of-the-year rant about my pet peeves within my smug little existence, trying to detach myself from the rape-protest drama in Delhi. Horrible, brutal crime, I told myself but I now live in New Zealand so should not be worried with what happens back home. I am safe here, I can wear what I like, do what I want, go out at any time of the night. I live alone, am independent, no one judges me. Sweet as. I was wrong. So, so wrong. This innocent young girl’s death has made me angry. Mad, stomping angry.

The last time I went to India, in 2010, men stared at my breasts as I walked the streets. Fully clothed in my khadi salwar-kurtas, not making eye contact with any unknown males, I used to go about  my work with men still coming up right in front of me, their eyes on my breasts. Then there was the time when a male bus passenger rubbed his penis against my shoulder as I sat in a crowded bus. He went on even as I slouched further into my seat contemplating whether to yell at him and make some noise or just let it go. That was my default setting. Like so many Indian women who grow up in India. Make yourself as inconspicuous as possible and even if you have to protest, think about it first because everyone, even other women, will turn around and tell you it is your fault. I mustered all my courage to yell at him and while he backed off slightly he yelled at me to ask what he had done. The implication being that I was just a mad woman to shout at him to stand straight and not lean against me; it is a crowded bus. How could I have asked him to keep his penis to himself and not on my shoulder? Is there a Hindi or Marathi word that a decent woman can use in public to describe the organ? If I’d spoken in English then I would have immediately been ‘modern’, further implying deterioration of my morality. Now I am in New Zealand. No catcalls from Indian men gathered at the end of each street, no one rubbing against me, groping me or staring at my breasts. In reset mode. Procrastinating any reaction to a young, innocent girl brutally raped, keeping it out my mindspace. Then she died. A life full of hope snuffed out. So I got mad, stomping angry. Mostly at myself. Somewhere in the comfort of reset mode compassion and empathy for my sisters was deleted. Besides, my intellectual snobbery stopped me from engaging in any discourse against the death sentence and stoning that the many Indians were calling out for. But now I want to plunge into it.

So I’ll start by arguing against the death sentence and stoning that so many Indians are demanding for the rapists. Stop; think. Did these six men just drop from the sky or are they a part of the Indian society? Where did they get their attitude towards women and violence? Or the idea that they could get away with such a brutal crime; that the police might not do anything? Indian governments of all ideologies have sanctioned rape in the name of suppressing rebellion and uprisings. When did middle class India last check the human rights record of the Indian Army against Kashmiri and North-Eastern women? Or the police raping tribal women in the Red Corridor? Or was it okay to use rape as a weapon for the safety of the rest of the Indians? The Culture Of Impunity and disrespect for women is not an aberration but ‘normal’ behaviour. So who deserves the death sentence? Indian soldiers? Indian police? Fathers that rape their daughters? Husbands that rape their wives? Brothers that rape their sisters? Politicians? Or we the people? For turning a blind eye?

Now let’s look at the prominent women who reacted to the rape.

Stoic Sonia-ji remained silent as per usual. Only to come make an appearance on television reading from the teleprompter.  Fake much?

Then there was Sushma-ji. The keeper of the virtue of us Hindu women said if the girl survives then she will be like the living dead. Not, (read subtext if you can through her boring lecture) because she had lost her intestines but because she was raped and would have no honour left.  Sushma-ji may I remind you that once upon a time you wanted all advertisements for sanitary napkins removed from television because they were a bad influence on us innocent Indian women. Perhaps we should have stayed at home five days a month and continued using old sarees to soak up our menstrual discharge? This way we would have been safer ya?

And finally Jaya-ji. The distress is genuine but to believe that because we worship so many goddesses Indian men actually respect women in real life?  Oh Jaya-ji, you are so naive. Only in our Bollywood films and only after we’ve had an item number in skimpy clothes and the man has tamed her and ‘saved her’ will the heroine find redemption in treating him like god. Only then will he respect her in return.

Overall the larger issue of the treatment of women remained unaddressed. What is it that makes Indian society treat Indian women shabbily? Here is one explanation. This is the story not just of one child who died after rape but many more who die before they are born, many who suffer because of insufficient dowry, domestic abuse, sexual abuse and abuse from institutions that are meant to protect them. Women like us and those not like us. This is the story of everyone’s attitude towards women as victims of sexual assault. Lawyer Flavia Agnes tells among other tales how the doctors examining a rape victim in Bangalore were more interested in the elasticity of her vagina than finding forensic evidence.

As India moves towards more economic liberalisation, with good or bad effect, society is bound to change and with that the Indian democracy. Which means we have to let go of the old absolutes of culture, tradition and religion that kept us rigid and inflexible; not reject them but adapt them.

For that to happen there has to be a revolution with a new leader. Not Narendra Modi, not Rahul Gandhi, not Anna Hazare, not Arvind Kejriwal and not Kiran Bedi. Not any of the right or left wing politicians but the people. The people will throw up their new leader. Before that will arise Kali, once again from the people, the power of the people, especially of the women. Because it is the women who will destroy the men who worship her then rape her before giving birth to him and nurturing him again.

Is India Really Calling?


I recently finished reading Anand GiridharadasINDIA CALLING, an intimate portrait of a nation’s remaking. I’d watched Jon Stewart interview Anand on The Daily Show and decided to read the book. Any book on and about India fascinates me. The idea of India as perceived and expressed by the writers more often than not reiterates that India means a billion things to a billion people. Some emotions and concepts overlap and some don’t. Depends on where you come from and where you want to go. So of course I picked up the book from my local library. It is less than 300 pages and should have been an easy read but a lot of the time I would slam it shut in mild irritation. Mild irritation because (a) the descriptions just went on and on as if trying to capture, project and exoticise an imagery for a Western audience already unable to fathom the effects of globalisation on a third world country (b) this was an upper-middle class, slightly condescending, slightly enamoured, male point-of-view.

It does not bother me that Anand is a second generation Indian-American. That was one of the reasons I wanted to read the book. The search for identity and roots is an universal desire amongst migrants and so Anand’s idea to go back to India and rediscover his roots is absolutely valid. Neither is he a bad writer but to condense a complex country and current social churning into India101 is problematic. Especially when there is no critique, only fascination.

I will only bullet-point the following and not necessarily in order.

  • Before anything else, the chapter on Mukesh Ambani is utterly sychophantic. Of course being the richest man in India means people either like you or hate you (and I’m not a fan) but perhaps like in a biopic there might have been some endearing qualities to this man, maybe. Anand has not been able to tell the reader so. Instead he pushes the idea that Mukesh Ambani represents the new India where anyone can become rich. The ‘villager-made-good’ image of Mr Ambani is repeatedly portrayed as if he does not care two hoots about being seen in chappals and pants that begin at his chest. How do you know it is not a deliberate image created to appeal to the common-man Reliance shareholder? And then build an ostentatious tower on allegedly dubiously obtained prime real estate.
  • Then there is Ravindra from Umred. Great story of a lower caste boy who made it big and even went to Hong Kong as team manager for the Indian roller skating team (although I cannot find any reference online). What percentage of the lower castes does he represent? Barely none. Just one ‘success story’ is not a sign of changing India. Is Ravindra now with a political party where he is the token Dalit leader? I am curious. Has he been able to transform his community by empowering them or just made money for his family? While rest of the lower castes continue to be where they are because the new middle class, made of poor people from the upper caste, assert themselves within the schema.
  • The Upstairs and Downstairs chachas from Ludhiana, one who exists in the past and another who looks towards the future are such caricatures. We know, we’ve always known. Such families existed before economic liberalisation and always will. They will be in television serials and in Indian films; they will be in your building in urban Bombay and they will be in some remote small town in the middle of India. My family has specimens like this. It is not a new conflict created in modern India unless it is to sell to Western readers.
  •  Obeisance to neoliberalism comes through in the chapter on the Maoists in Hyderabad. Anand tries hard not be be contemptuous of a ‘part-time’ revolutionary who also writes for The Economic Times but ultimately accuses him of being another Brahmin who will treat the workers/comrades as if from the lower castes. On one hand the book eulogises the contradictions that is India and then goes on to point fingers at a living example of the same. Because a businessman activist who runs an NGO aimed at social justice is more kosher than a middle class man who is trying to pay the bills and create awareness of a different kind? Thomas Friedman v/s Karl Marx scenario. Depends on who makes the inference. In this case it is Anand Giridharadas.

The book pretty much retells bits and pieces of Indian history for a Western reader but stays clear of the uncomfortable. Where is the Hindu-Muslim conflict? Why not a single Muslim minority person who might have possibly gained from economic liberalisation? What about the Hindu fundamentalists? Farmers who own and till their own land, frustrated at global cotton prices and helpless because of the free-market policies in India?

Anand tells his grandfather’s story, of marrying a young girl and working for Hindustan Lever, of old school cultural values. Very touching and beautiful. My grandfather grew up in poverty and was the first from his family to have higher education-to become a doctor. He too had very old school cultural values. Honesty, modesty, frugality, hardwork, social responsibility and all that. In his book Anand somehow interprets these as British values that do no fit Indian culture anymore because as India has become richer Indians have gone back to their ‘real’ culture. Manu’s culture; that ‘we-are-like-this-only’ and so everything is relative and subjective. A low caste man commiting a crime deserves to be punished whereas a Brahmin not so. (I have over simplified it here rather than get into a deeper discussion.) So all the above values as subscribed to by our grandparents are alien. That means, as I interpret it, Indians can get away with a lot of bad behaviour and continued lack of repsonsibility towards the world because of some ancient patriarch whose words suit our existence. Or is it that while money is great and greed too, there is no need to apologise about it because the scriptures say so? How convenient. That leaves no space for public discourse at all. Except to blame the government and politicians for every bad thing.

The only three things Anand has observed perfectly are the (a) attitude of the upper middle class South Bombay types who live in posh localities and frequent the posher clubs (or gymkhanas), (b) the modern Indian woman. My dear sisters from back home. Nothing changes there and (c) the lack of a liberal arts education that allows one to think tangentially.

I know this blog is already too long but I do want to use two films as examples of pinpointing the changes in India; to see how Indians negotiate modernity and tradition.

Karan Johar’s 1998 film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai showed us young Indians who lived in their designer gear, played basketball, called each other dude, travelled the world (in the space of the songs) and were at ease with themselves. They had no desire to question tradition and culture, in fact that is where they anchored themselves. Elders were not challenged, there was no sign of defiance, resistance or protest. It was all about the family, love and maintaining status quo. More than ten years later, Imtiaz Ali‘s film Rockstar has an angry, defiant young man as the protagonist. He is unable to express himself, does not know how to do it. His girlfriend gets married without understanding the meaning of it (as do many young Indians) and then the real love story begins. An extra-marital relationship that is fraught with guilt and the inability to escape from what is. There are questions galore, directed to family, to society, to tradition but no words to articulate. (Except through the song Sadda Haq.)  In the end both die. That is the impact of globalisation without social discourse. It has speeded up the way Youngistan is discarding ‘old ways’ but without any bulwark of references (should I say foundation). This is unprecedented. The older generation, even those in their forties, who grew up in a socialist India that then transformed into a free market India in the early nineties, what I call the ‘lost generation’, is still to comprehend the changes. So where is that leading to? Backwards. Because when we cannot make sense of what is going on we look to the ‘golden’ past, to religion and the scriptures, imagining and hoping to find safety there.

At best Anand’s book is a collection of his personal expriences and observations as he tries to figure out his ‘Indian identity’ and at worst it is a form of Orientalism I have not yet been able to name. It would be problematic if the book became the definitive text about social and cultural life in free market India.

Paresis Of Mythical Past.


The 34 Asterix comic books feature 704 traumatic head injuries. Thus have academics analysed and published in a paper in the European Journal Of Neurosurgery, Acta Neurochirurgica. The researchers, lead by Marcel A Kamp, examined the signs (periorbital ecchymosis, hypoglossal paresis etc) and rated the seriousness of each injury according to the Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS). Over 50% of the traumata were classified as severe (GCS between 3-8) and in 696 cases the cause was blunt force while 8 were caused by strangulation. Of course most of the victims were Romans (63.9%) and the rest included Vikings, Britons, Normans, Goths and even extraterrestrials; most of the injuries were caused by Asterix and Obelix (57.6%). Those who consumed Getafix’s Magic Potion suffered from more severe traumata. So goes on an article reporting the same. The analysis has the world of science excited and impressed. Okay. So that might be one big joke and not so robust, apparently, but someone tried.

I wonder. Can Indian pop kitsch mythology withstand even the slightest scientific or academic analysis? It is not an (pseudo)intellectual question. Could the gods, goddesses and demons (asuras) undergo tests classifying actions and reactions, using the Amar Chitra Katha comics as reference? Yeah, Asterix and Obelix cannot be compared to the 330 million Hindu gods because they are created by humans for comic books, as cartoon characters. That is one argument. Hindu mythology has developed over millenia and is largely an allegory for the mysteries of the world and questions about existence. But aren’t the pictures in the ACK comics derived from some reference? Don’t we make our gods in the images we want to see and admire? Or does the aura of mythology and the holiness attached to it preclude enquiry and analysis?

One Sunday morning some years ago, a friend and I went to the Avondale Market. There was a stall selling pooja paraphernalia. The usual kitsch and glitter that our Hindu gods and we love. And fair, rotund, rosy-cheeked, beautiful goddesses. ‘Nice goddesses,’ I told the Indian man from Fiji. ‘These images are inspired by Raja Ravi Varma you know.’ The man was aghast. ‘These goddesses are thousands of years old, sacred. Our holy texts describe them.’ ‘Really, who told you?’ I wanted to have a few laughs. My friend rolled her do-you-have-to eyes. 🙂 Pardon me for talking down from my pedestal but how on earth do we move ahead if we don’t know where we come from? And I don’t mean in sociological terms or as a migrant living in the Western world.  If religious priests had it their way we would all live and die blind in a world created by their gods. So we need to know these gods came about in the first place. No?

I swing between being atheistic to agnostic and somewhere in-between I acknowledge the presence of a higher power, the laws of this universe that are equal and unrelenting. The rest is all man made. So are our stories and myths. I’ve always enjoyed the many stories from Hindu mythology. My grandfather was an amazing storyteller and he could narrate stories at the drop of a hat. Not just from the Hindu epics but tales of local saints and miracles, unkown-to-Brahmanism.  He was an avid reader and taught us to be the same. Then to seek the real meaning beneath. That is what Hindu mythology is about. Representing the ever flowing universe and all within. Everything alive,  everything divine, everything in flux. Nothing is pure good or pure evil, one balances the other and even the Gods (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva) are not infallible.

Even if, at this moment, the universe cannot be comprehensively broken down within the realms of physics and biochemistry, why not try to analyse where the imagery comes from? My ancestral family deity is represented by a stone.  Never mind the statue in-between. And the village goddess is as black as sin.

Now think of a pictorial representation in terms of popular culture. In order to humanise and hence relate to mankind. Is that an ever evolving process or set in stone? If we let the religious priests have their way, then yes, pictorial representations would be set in stone. Unless there is money to be made. Then I suppose it is fine for Vaishnodevi to look like a light skinned version of Pocahontas as imagined by Disney? The fairness cream being sanctioned by the holy texts. Until then. Paresis of mythical past. Just saying. Now I’m off to re-read Asterix’s adventures. Along with my surgery chapter on head injuries.


Nationo-chauvanistic-alism. Impressions of an exile. India 5


Salman Khan says nationalism is his religion. Not Bollywood PR speak, no. I watched, gobsmacked, the man himself on television say the thing just like one would say, “Keep Your City Clean” or “Hum Do Hamare Do” or “Do Not Spit”. Nationalism is a public-spirit-morality-love-your-country message. Jingoistic patritotic populist.

What is nationalism, I tried to ask. Tried because no one wants to have conversations pertaining to such topics.

Nationalism means loving your country (you silly thing)! Nationalism means feeling pride for INDIA. Nationalism means being the best superpower, kicking gora, chini and every other (especially Pakistani) arse. Nationalism=patriotism and all that. You know, like, proud to be Indian?

The Stanford Encyclopaedia Of Philosophy describes both patriotism and nationalism at length. Briefly, nationalism is (1)the attitude that the members of a nation have when they care about their national identity, and (2) the actions that the members of a nation take when seeking to achieve (or sustain) self-determination. Patriotism can be defined as love of one’s country, identification with it, and special concern for its well-being and that of compatriots. The two often overlap, especially in political discourse, when such concepts have to be simplified for a supposedly not-so-smart hoi polloi and ultimately turning the psyche into ‘us versus them’.

So when Salman exhorts everyone to become nationalistic, he also means patriotic. LOVE YOUR COUNTRY! DIE FOR YOUR COUNTRY! WE ARE THE BEST! IT IS OUR TURN! This then becomes all about world power, domination, aggression and ultimately bad behaviour. I noticed. Along with being a fast growing economy, along with becoming flatter and flatter (as per Thomas Friedman), we also become obnoxious. Because all the other superpowers are like that. Look at America! (Say that with an upper middle class Indian accent.) The popular discourse of ‘us versus them’ then steering towards our own people. Urban versus rural, Hindus versus Muslims, rich versus poor, caste versus caste. Anything or anybody that looks like an obstacle in ‘development’ and ‘progress’ ultimately unpatriotic. The non-violent gentle soul that I am, I was shocked at the hatred Indians had for ‘others’.

In his book, The Idea Of India, Sunil Khilnani asks the question Who Is An Indian? Such a vast, complex country, a palimpsest (Jawaharlal Nehru in A Discovery Of India) is obviously difficult to govern. To then push the idea that mere economic development will cure all ills and ailments, that consumption will make us happy and malls the next destination for pilgrimage is bound to create the demon of nationo-chauvanistic-alism. The Indian media plays a big part. Bollywood booty shakes juxtaposed with rape cases and corrupt politicians along with the rise in food prices. Where is the time for reflection and introspection in between advertisements? And certainly not for temperate language. It is all about fear, insecurity, drama and money. I don’t know if any Indian television station has correspondents stationed in other countries. How can there be any conception of what this existence is?

I personally do not believe in patriotism. Nationalism is a useful notion only until a goal is achieved. After sixty years of independence, India and Indians do not need to either. Democracy and freedom come with responsibility and that has to be constantly discussed in the public domain. To be a world power we have to look within. To lead we do not have to be aggressive or harsh or try to control others. We also have to engage with the rest of the world. We certainly don’t want to be America or emulate her foreign policy or suck up to her. (But even in the West, the dialogue about democracy and problems continues.)

Whenever I tried to talk such I was told that since I’d left India for the West I was a traitor or sorts. So what gave me the right to opine? Because India is an inherent, non-negotiable part of my identity. Because I believe India can be a country to be reckoned with and not just in economic terms. Because India has the potential but only if Indians do serious introspection.

Jingoism is ugly and immoral.

One Of Those. Impressions of an exile. India 4.


INT. KANGRA AIRPORT. CHECK IN ‘LOUNGE’. DAY

It has been a long wait. The single flight coming in from Delhi was delayed consequently the outward bound flight is late. Impatient passengers clear their luggage through the x-ray machine; tagged and bound. The tiny airport abuzz and strangely disciplined for an Indian one. SAPNA goes in for police clearance. Her backpack full of electronics, a paper carrybag full of shopping and a precious Tibetan painting from Dharamshala.

INT. KANGRA AIRPORT. POLICE CLEARANCE AREA. DAY

SAPNA follows the routine. Electronics out of the backpack, into a tray. Carrybag with fragile contents carefully laid out horizontally on the x-ray machine. MALE POLICE OFFICER pompous. Now towards the female section for metal detection.

INT. KANGRA AIPORT. METAL DETECTION BOOTH. DAY.

HENNA HAIRED FEMALE POLICE (HHFP) gives SAPNA the once over. Once again she is assumed to be English-speaking, ‘modern’ Indian. SAPNA takes off her two jackets.

HHFP (In English)

Why you remhowe jackets?

SAPNA(In Hindi)

So you can check me

HHFP (In English)

Did I ask you to remhowe jackets?

SAPNA (In Hindi)

No but…

HHFP (In English)

I nebher ask. Then why you remhowe? Wear them.

SAPNA quietly dons the two jackets. This is not the time to question logic and security routine. She is sad to leave Dharamshala but Delhi will be another adventure.

HHFP (In English)

Bhery good. Now I will check.

She runs the metal detector all over SAPNA’s body. Nods in approval, stamps the boarding pass and lets her through.

INT. KANGRA AIRPORT. POLICE CLEARANCE AREA. DAY

On the other side-which is also the exit to the runway. SAPNA carefully rearranges her cameras and laptop into the backpack, makes sure her precious painting is not damaged, nothing has been nicked and the luggage tag on both bags has been stamped. Another pompous MALE POLICE OFFICER looks on.

 

I know it is not in script format. Don’t know how to do it within this blog. 🙂

Dharamshala. Impressions of an exile. India 3.


Dharamshala existed in my dreams. For the longest time. Ever since I first encountered Tibetans. Way back in Bombay, during a non-existent winter (as Bombay winters are), laying out their winter wares on the pavements near Kala Ghoda. Imagine selling warm clothes to a Bombayite! Curious, I got talking to them and they told me about their journey from Dharamshala to my city. Sing-song Hindi, smiley, crinkly eyes. Then another said she had come from South India. Whatever little knowledge I had of Tibetan refugees, that bit, about a settlement in Karnataka, was news to me. After all, for the average Indian, in the days of Doordarshan, newspapers and the neonatal period of cable television, Tibetan refugees=Dalai Lama=hospitable, warm, fuzzy India + neighbourly concern. I was hooked; an invisible bond attaching me to these people from the Himalayas I know not why.  But journeys happen and how.

One day, out of the blue, or so it seemed to meine familie, I declared I wanted to work at the Tibetan hospital in Dharamshala. They thought I was mad. How could I leave Bombay and my home and medical practice to go to a ‘hill station’ ?!  I’d written them a letter see. In the pre-webbed India, where getting any information was like looking for a needle in a haystack, I had blindly written, on the blue inland letter of Indian Post, to ‘The Tibetan Hospital, Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh’ asking if I could work at the hospital. I got a reply. Yes you may but only as a volunteer. They kindly included instructions on how to get there from Bombay and also a telephone number.  Could I get past the wrath of the family though?

Then I visited Sikkim. It was a trip offered to me by an uncle. He said Singapore I said Sikkim. So I was on a flight to Siliguri via Calcutta and then a bus to Gangtok, promising to call my mother everyday. Me and the backpack, one more nail in my ‘she-is-mad’ coffin. I can still feel it. Walking the streets of Gangtok, visiting Enchey Monastery, a yak ride on Chhangu Lake, going up to Nathu La looking over Tibet, the twisting Teesta river, Pelling, the shrouded Kanchenjunga…I bought my first mekhla, the traditional dress from North-East India, in a tiny village near Pelling. That was my second calling. When the Himalayas beckon you cannot ignore.

This year I was meant to go to Leh. The tickets and accomodation booked. Then the cloudburst happened.

One can say that the Tibetan refugees are doing well in Dharamshala (McLeodganj technically because that is where most of them live and that is where I stayed.) They are allowed to practice their religion, arts, culture, do business and go about their lives.  Peace prevails. Co-existence and tolerance exemplary of Indian hospitality.

The poverty is shocking. New Zealand has an annual intake of refugees from across the globe with a settlement process and follow up which is still not enough to ensure integration, where identity is always in crisis, mental health always an issue and the many manifestations of suffering unknown. What could be the state of a people living in limbo for the last fifty years? These people who followed their spiritual leader with the firm belief that they will return home one day but exist on an annual special permit?  Now a second generation is born in exile and the refugees keep coming, running away from torture and annihilation. Of course the tourists come too and they bring the money. So what? How many street stalls can you have selling the same prayer wheels and beads?

The chaos that is India is evident in McLeodganj. So is the ‘progress’-pieces of hill being cut to build malls and fancy hotels with saunas. Then there are the monasteries hidden in the by-lanes, full of monks who cannot speak a word of Hindi/English and who subsist by teaching Tibetan/Buddhism to white women in tight tee shirts and no bras. (Of course you get that in Varanasi too-with the marijuana-so spiritual tourism is not just about the Tibetans.)  It is the lack of status that broke my heart.  Old people with diapers and no teeth, ordinary people who want to go home, women beaten up by unemployed husbands, single mothers…newly born infants, just gorgeous and cuddly, who will probably never know home. Except in museums, fossilised.  All living where they don’t really belong or want to belong.

Yatha bhuta, anicca. Perhaps. But does that justify suffering? Would it be unfair to ask why India has not done more towards mediating talks between China and the Tibetans? Because offering space and place is enough? Because there are no ‘Indian’ refugees and hence we do not understand the psyche of displacement? (Post-partition Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, the Kashmiris, tribals pushed out of their land, debt-ridden villagers migrating to cities…refugees.) Because it is geopolitically not prudent to engage with China on this? How about being a world leader in developing and maintaining human values? (But then we would have to have our own house in order no?)

I would like to believe that the Tibetans get their strength from Buddhism. The non-violence, the peace, continued grit and determination. To treat them like ‘temporary refugees’ and not being pro-active in helping them realise their homeland not only undermines them but also reflects on our own core values and spirituality. Superpowers are not merely economic.



Future past. Impressions of an exile. India 2.


One of the books I am reading now is Santosh Desai’s MOTHER PIOUS LADY, a compilation of columns he has written over the years observing the quirks and idiosyncrasies of middle class India. It is funny, full of sharp observations and often nostalgic about Gen X growing up in a pre-globalised India. One reviewer likened it to RK Laxman’s Common Man cartoons. Those who grew up in India and still live there know what I am talking about. The hardships, the ‘can-do-must-do’ attitude, the emphasis on dignity, the little treats once-in-a-while, the first time a family bought a television/scooter/refrigerator/electronics/even a Prestige cooker, arranged marriages, native villages as origin and end etc. Most of all the chalta-hai, we-are-like-this-only demeanour.

Now that has changed. Liberalised, aspirational middle-class India does not know that eating ice-cream happened only at wedding receptions (Cassata anyone?) and on rare occasions otherwise. Or that trunk calls used to be made from post offices and generally meant bad news; otherwise people sent telegrams. We used to get post cards for 25 paise-I am not sure they are around any more. Still, this is not an exercise in nostalgia. Economic liberalisation, free-trade market, globalisation and related states were inevitable. Young Indians look into the future with positivity. The mobility, entrepreneurship, consumption, independence and individuality-to some extent. They seem to have it all. Yet the chalta-hai, we-are-like-this-only demeanour.

Grounded in complacency and denial. Perhaps I have a ‘Western’ outlook to discourse and democratic responsibility and I want analysis. Every time I argued about civic process, populism and the relationship of the polity with the populace I was told ‘You have stayed away too long’, ‘We are an emotional people, we don’t like change’, ‘New Zealand is a small country so run differently’, ‘We should give the people what they want’ etc. No doubt India is a tough country to govern and Indians are complex. The culture does not make it easy either. Isn’t that precisely why Indians should be more self-aware? Shouldn’t the easier access to knowledge, information (not government process-but that is another story) and communication make us argumentative for the better?

In one of his articles Desai observes that Indians change at a pace that is comfortable with small, almost invisible steps which do not seem to disturb the status quo but actually is. Fine. But the pace at which ambition, aspiration, consumption and social behaviour is zooming such small steps create a massive disparity and inability to deal with the situation. Thomas Friedman, the great propagator of free market and author of THE WORLD IS FLAT praised India’s liberalisation and could only foresee a bright future (=money+material). There was no analysis of the social and cultural impact on Indians so deeply rooted in their traditions and structures. Here is what I thought.

Young India cannot deal with the material glut because there is no precedence. Then it turns to the past. There it is safe, there is reassurance, solidness and warmth like a mother’s bosom. Then we can chalta-hai, be like-this-only complacent because there is no need to examine the disparity between what we have, how it affects us and how we react. Because apparently everything will be alright!